LitChat Interview: Miriam Goderich,
Dystel & Goderich Literary Management
Miriam Goderich and Jane Dystel have been partners since 1995 and they work closely as an agenting team to generate book ideas, help create book proposals, place projects with publishing companies, and negotiate all contracts pertaining to publishing and subsidiary rights. In addition, Miriam is an insightful editor who has been responsible for discovering and working on a number of first novels. She is also very involved in developing nonfiction projects and taking them from the conceptual stage to publication. Miriam’s areas of interest include: literary and commercial fiction as well as some genre fiction, narrative nonfiction, pop culture, psychology, history, science, art, business books, and biography/memoir.
Miriam received a BA in Comparative Literature and an MA in English from Columbia University. She was born in Cuba and, prior to settling in the New York area, lived in Spain and Miami, Florida. Currently, she resides just outside the City with her husband and son, a dog, and a parrot.
To query Miriam, contact her here.
LS: Miriam, thanks so much for stopping by to chat with us. We’re so happy you’re here. I’d like to discuss what led you into the publishing industry, specifically what led you into agenting. Did your decision to enter the industry stem from a love of reading in childhood? What were your favorite books as a kid?
When I left graduate school I had no idea what I would do with my pile of student loans and my Master’s degree in English. I didn’t know anything about the publishing business but I knew that being surrounded by books all day was my idea of the dream job. So, I answered an ad in the New York Times for an agent’s assistant, not really knowing what agents did and never did anything else.
Yes, I was an inveterate book worm as a kid. Having lived in three countries by the time I was eight, books were a source of solace and comfort and to this day I get a little twitchy if I don’t have a stack of books nearby. I read anything and everything when I was a kid, from comic books to classics that I was probably too young for. Like so many kids, I loved Judy Blume and Richard Peck and when I was a little older, Dickens and Austen were great favorites, and I always had a soft spot for Russian and Latin American literature.
LS: You’ve been with DGLM for 22 years. What was the transition like from being an assistant to becoming an agent and then partner? What’s been the most remarkable change you’ve seen in the industry since then?
I started out as Jane Dystel’s assistant and, a few years after she left Acton & Dystel to start her own agency, she and I became partners. We’re an agenting team and together we’ve built an agency that we’re very proud of. In that time we’ve seen some major changes in the industry but the biggest, most seismic change has been the e-book revolution, the repercussions of which are ongoing.
LS: From what I’ve read about DGLM and your personal philosophy, I gather that you are an editorial agent. What is that process like, particularly when you’re working with a debut writer? Is the process subjective based on the writer?
Jane and I are really adamant about the quality of the material that our agency submits to publishers. As a result, we’ve always done more editorial work on proposals and manuscripts than most agents. Most writers we’ve worked with over the years have been extremely appreciative of our efforts in this area (especially on the rare occasions when they’ve found themselves in situations where editorial support was not forthcoming from their publisher and we’ve had to step in and actually take on that role as well). We do everything from brainstorming on ideas with our clients to editing draft after draft of their proposals or manuscripts to make sure that they’re as polished as possible, to suggesting book projects we think would suit that particular person’s talents and credentials. It’s a very collaborative process and one that we and they enjoy. The most important thing with debut writers is to establish really good communication and explain how the process works and invite them to ask questions and to use us to help him or her as much as possible.
LS: What should querying writers expect from the relationship with their agent and what should these writers ask prior to signing with an agent?
They should expect clear communication and someone who is willing to answer all their questions. They should have an agent who responds to their calls or e-mails in a timely manner and who is forthcoming about the process of getting their book sold. Authors looking for an agent should ask as many questions as they can about the agents’ interests, successes, about the agency agreement they are expected to sign, about what they can expect in terms of the agent being in touch, etc. They should research the agent and the agency and make sure that this person is a good fit for them and their work.
LS: What qualities do you look for in a writer before signing?
Aside from strong writing and storytelling, depending on the category, we look for different things. Obviously a literary novel requires gorgeous prose and depth of insight and character development. A self-help book requires that the author have a platform and excellent credentials. On a personal level, we expect authors we represent to be friendly, respectful, good communicators, and open to taking advice and criticism. Those are all key to having a successful publishing career.
LS: DGLM represents a lot of nonfiction. Is your reading routine the same for nonfiction as it is for fiction? What’s the biggest difference when trying to sell a nonfiction title versus fiction?
We do line by line editing on nonfiction proposals whereas on fiction we look at larger structural issues, but the process is really the same. We read and give feedback and when we think something is ready for submission, we send it out to multiple editors and publishers. Nonfiction is easier to sell and usually sells more quickly. Fiction takes longer because you must find someone to fall in love and that particular alchemy can take time.
LS: I don’t think we can say that a “perfect query” exists. However, there are elements that certainly make a query strong. What should a strong query contain in order to grab your attention?
We have a blog on our website where we’ve discussed queries ad nauseum. You can find it here.
LS: The distribution of self-publishing seems to have changed the dynamic of publishing somewhat. What do you think the future of publishing holds and how will these changes impact agents?
I think that e-books are forcing publishers and agents to really rethink the way they’ve done business for decades. I think it’s clear that with the advent of e-readers and e-books, in the not too distant future we’ll see small print runs and the bulk of sales being electronic sales. The pros are less waste, no need for huge warehouses and ancillary costs, the cons are shrinking companies and probably a much different relationship between authors, publishers and agents. I think there’s a great opportunity here for the publishing business to reinvent itself and continue to bring forth great books that are expertly edited and curated, but there will be a lot of growing pains in the process.
LS: How important is a knowledge of the business of writing in relation to writing a strong manuscript?
I’m not sure it’s at all important to have a knowledge of the business in order to create a very good manuscript. If you’re a great writer and have a great story to tell, it doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard of Random House. But, depending on your category, an understanding of the business and a familiarity with literary trends and the potential audiences for your book, can only help you in selling your work (first to an agent who’ll want to represent you, then to a publisher, and finally to a wide readership). The more authors can educate themselves about the business the better.
LS: Can you finish this sentence for us? “It would be my dream to represent the next__________.”
Ha! That’s like asking what’s my favorite book (the answer is the next book I read that blows me away). There are so many authors I admire across many different categories, that I’d be hard pressed to name one. I think all publishing people want the next book that they can’t put down and that they can’t stop thinking about once they do.